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Stories of Bartlett

posted Jun 21, 2017, 10:19 AM by James Nennemann
By: Harry Wilkins

Like several other towns in Fremont County, Bartlett owes its existence to the construction of the Council Bluffs and St. Joseph Railroad, completed in 1867. The town was named for Annie Bartlett, wife of Henry Phelps, an out-of-state railroad contractor who filed the plat and named the first streets. Once established, the village took root and by the mid-1870s had attained a population of around 300 souls. It boasted a post office, two dry goods stores, a drug store, shoe shop, blacksmith, one millinery store, a steam lumber mill and a school with one hundred students, on the corner of Ferris and Walnut Streets.

Leta Adelaide Harris, daughter of banker Charles Harris and his wife Sadie, lived in Bartlett her entire life. Before her death in 1977, she wrote a brief history of the town which included anecdotes of life in the early days, among them several episodes involving saloons patronized by local mill and railroad workers, characterized as “a very rough type.”

According to Miss Harris, the ready availability of liquor and prevalence of guns in the town made life more precarious, something brought home with a vengeance to tavern owner William Agin. The Irish immigrant was shot in the back by an unknown assailant and left paralyzed. He spent his remaining days in a wheelchair “carrying a gun every minute” looking for the shooter.  In another incident, a traveling showman was giving a puppet show in the school when a bullet “whizzed through the air from the open door” lodging in the west wall and, not surprisingly, breaking up the performance. The bullet hole remained visible in the school for years.

A possible encounter with an American folklore legend occurred in the early 1870s in the saloon of James Marshall Kimbrell. George Huffman, a Bartlett boy employed to serve customers, alerted his boss that a group of men had entered the establishment; they ordered drinks while claiming they had no money. Kimbrell was working in the saloon’s storeroom, and when he peeked around the corner he reportedly saw men with a “hard, desperate character.” He told George to give them what they wanted. Kimbrell was certain the men were Jesse and Frank James and their gang, based on the fact that the outlaws were operating in Iowa around that time.

As the years passed the town settled down to a more sedate existence. The Christian Church was organized in 1872, joined by the Knights of Pythias and an Odd Fellows Lodge. Other trappings of civilization included a hotel (destroyed by fire), a town physician, Dr. T. C. Harris (who also ran a general store) and a new high school, built in 1921. But like other small towns sustained by railroads, Bartlett entered a steady period of decline with the advent of the automobile and the construction of modern highways. Leta Harris and her sister Iva never left home and remained active in the local community until their passing. They are buried with their family in Thurman.

Below: Bartlett in 1891